Coworkers claim Aztec judge bugged courthouse

Plaintiffs allege Connie Johnston recorded private communications

Steve Garrison
Connie Johnston

FARMINGTON — A lawsuit filed in the Eleventh Judicial District Court accuses suspended Aztec Magistrate Court Judge Connie Johnston of surreptitiously recording private conversations at the courthouse.

Johnston allegedly placed recording devices in more than a dozen areas, including restrooms, judges' offices and an attorney-client conference room, according to the lawsuit. She recorded "hundreds of hours" of private communication, some of which was protected by attorney-client privilege, the lawsuit states.

Johnston was suspended Dec. 1 by the New Mexico Supreme Court after she ordered a court clerk be jailed for contempt.

The New Mexico Judicial Standards Commission is investigating allegations she committed 15 violations of the state's Code of Judicial Conduct since her appointment to the bench in August 2014.

Her husband, Brian Johnston, a retired deputy with the San Juan County Sheriff's Office, and her sister, Michelle Constant, an evidence manager at the sheriff's office, are also named as defendants in the lawsuit.

They are accused of either aiding in the recording of private communication at the courthouse or aiding in the transcription of those recordings.

The state of New Mexico is also a named defendant.

Connie Johnston declined to comment Monday on the lawsuit. Her attorney, E. Justin Pennington, did not respond to a request for comment.

Johnston previously told The Daily Times that magistrate court clerks harassed her because she refused to order inappropriate sentences and said she was a witness to rule violations at the courthouse.

She further claimed in a supreme court filing on Jan. 27 that she was targeted by staff after complaining that the Aztec Magistrate Court's cash bond procedure was mismanaged and ripe for abuse. She also claims she raised concerns about unspecified sentencing improprieties.

Barry Massey, spokesman for the New Mexico Administrative Office of the Courts, said in an email he could not discuss Johnston's allegations due to the ongoing investigation by the standards commission, but he said cash bonds are audited both internally and by external auditors.

"The AOC is confident that adequate safeguards exist for the handling of cash bonds," he said.

Constant also did not respond to a request for comment.

Sheriff's office Capt. Brice Current said Monday his office has been informed of the allegations against Constant. He said when Constant was confronted with the allegations, she admitted she transcribed recordings for her sister, but "she does not feel that she is doing anything illegal."

Current said the claims are being investigated, but Constant has not been placed on administrative leave.

The lawsuit was filed Friday by attorney Steve Murphy on behalf of magistrate judges Trudy Reed-Chase and Barry Sharer, as well as nine court employees.

Murphy said Monday the allegations were based on statements Johnston's attorney made during a hearing before the New Mexico Supreme Court on Feb. 10.

"They have admitted they have recordings of Judge Sharer, Judge Chase and (court manager) Lori Proctor," Murphy said.

The plaintiffs are suing for intentional invasion of privacy, abuse of privacy, intentional interference with communications, civil conspiracy, whistle-blower protection and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

The plaintiffs seek compensatory and punitive damages.

Murphy said if Johnston secretly recorded and listened to privileged communications between attorneys and defendants, those defendants' cases could be impacted.

Murphy said the New Mexico Administrative Office of the Courts should immediately review the recordings to determine whether any criminal cases were tainted by Johnston's alleged actions.

Johnston has presided over several criminal cases, including at least one murder case.

San Juan County Chief Deputy District Attorney Dustin O'Brien said Monday his office asked New Mexico State Police to investigate the claims against Johnston for potential criminal charges, but the agency declined to do so.

State police Sgt. Elizabeth Armijo said Monday the investigation presented a conflict of interest.

"Our officers and personnel work closely with the courts and all judges in the area and we believe an outside entity would be better suited handling the investigation," she said.

O'Brien said his office is now in discussions with the New Mexico Attorney General's Office about investigating the matter.

"It's also possible it would be a violation of federal law and that I do not know," he said. "Federal law regarding recordings and privacy are different and more detailed than state statute."

James Hallinan, a spokesman for the attorney general's office, said the office reviews every complaint received and investigates where appropriate.

"It is the policy of this office to neither confirm nor deny an existence of an investigation, in order to preserve the integrity of our investigations and protect those individuals not charged with a crime," he said.

Steve Garrison covers crime and courts for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4644.